Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History: When the Tide Turned

Today marks the start of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller History Month, and I wanted to pick up from where we left off last time.

You’ll remember that the arrival of “Egyptians” to Britain in the late 15th and early 16th centuries seems to have been a positive experience. We know that Gypsies were paid by the Scottish treasury, probably to entertain at court. But thetideturned very quickly: in 1530, Henry VIII passed the Egyptians Act which legalised the expulsion of Gypsies from England.

In case you were wondering, this wasn’t the first time that a monarch expelled an entire group from England. In 1290, Edward I expelled Jewish people from England. They were later “invited” back by Oliver Cromwell.

While Edward I expelled Jewish people for (very personal) financial reasons, Henry’s motivations were different, as explained in the text of the Act:

"Many owtlandisshe people calling themselfes Egiptsions using no craft nor faict of merchandise, have comen in to thys realme and goon from Shyre to Shyre and place to place in grete companye and used grete subtile and craftye meanys to deceyve the people bearing them in hande that they by palmestrye could tell menne and Womens Fortunes and soo many Tymes by craft and subtiltie hath deceyved the people of theyr Money."

I LOVE the original text, but here is a "modern translation" if you need it:

"Many outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians, using no craft or real skill, have come into this realm and gone from shire to shire and place to place in great numbers and have used great trickery and crafty means to deceive the people by using palmestry to read men and women's fortunes. So many times, by deceit and trickery, they have deceived the people of their money."

Henry gave these “Egyptians” 15 days to leave the country.

A photo of the original Egyptians Act, 1530. Image courtesy of National Archives.

But, a bit like his attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon, it didn’t quite go to plan. Fast forward to 1554 and his daughter, Mary I, took Gypsy hate to another level. Mary gave Gypsies one month to leave England or stay and face execution.

Historians aren’t certain just how “effectively” Tudor governments policed this Act. Tragically, there are records of successful prosecutions. In 1577, for example, six men and one woman were executed for keeping company with Gypsies at Aylesbury. In the early 17th century, Sir Matthew Hale recorded that in one meeting of the Sussex Assizes, 13 Gypsies were executed on a single day.

Those who evaded prosecution and stayed in England were pushed to the fringes of society. They were criminalised, marginalised and socially isolated. Increasingly, Gypsies were associated with petty crimes, like begging and coin counterfeiting, which is reflected in legal records from the early modern period.

To me, it’s clear that Tudor prejudice and discrimination have become our frames of reference for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. It explains why our society continues to view these people through a lens of suspicion and hostility. And that’s why I’m keen to share as much GRT history this month as I can. I’ll be posting one fact or resource every day this month on LinkedIn and Twitter. I hope you follow along.

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